Need a Better Diagnostic Writing

Over time, I’ve drifted away from asking students to write a brief in-class diagnostic essay at the start of the semester, whose sub rosa purpose is to identify individuals with serious writing problems. Too often, asking them to introduce themselves and say something about their goals or hopes for their college experience results in three sentences or worse, a bulleted list. Ask for anything more involved, and they rush through it so they can get out the door before class officially ends.

And really: we’re not asking them to write off-the-cuff in-class essays in freshman comp. We’re asking them to learn to use a process to think through, draft, revise, and polish documents based on some sort of research material. That requires them to work in the quiet of their homes or offices and to spend some time reflecting on what they’ve written. So, to my mind the instant in-class essay diagnoses nothing more than one’s skill at being glib on paper.

I need a better strategy.

One of the high-school teachers in the choir where I sing mentioned having her kids write a source-based paper that had to include one quote from a light piece of reading or an easily accessible video. That struck me as a pretty good idea for a kick-off essay. They would take it home, think about what they’re writing, work some source into the squib, and those who have already been introduced to the required MLA style could demonstrate whether to what degree they’ve mastered it.

Like most freshman composition handbooks, both of our texts (101 and 102) contain various salutory readings. So I’m thinking why not ask them to read a short essay and comment on it, incorporating at least one reference to the source? The first draft for essay 1 isn’t due until three or four weeks into the semester, for either course, and so there’s no reason they couldn’t have a few days to work on this little project. Make it graded, and then at the end of the semester drop the lowest grade in the course, since about a third of them will flunk. One could use, for example, Firoozeh Dumas’s “The’F’ Word” or Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “War and Football” and ask for a specific response. Possibly something along these lines:

Do you agree that war is like football, and that the game makes little sense until you accept that analogy? Why or why not? Use at least one quotation or paraphrase from Brzezinski’s article in your essay. If you know how to use Modern Language Association (MLA) style, do your best to cite Brzezinski’s piece in your text and to document the article as a “work cited.” Length: write until you are done and then stop.


Have you or has anyone you know had an immigrant experience like Dumas’s? What happened, and how did your experience compare with hers? Length: write until you are done and then stop.


How do you think your name affects other people’s perception of you? Have you ever wanted to change your name, or have you ever tried to change your name? Use at least one quotation or paraphrase from Dumas’s article in your essay. If you know how to use Modern Language Association (MLA) style, do your best to cite Brzezinski’s in your text and to document the article as a “work cited.” Length: write until you are done and then stop.

Length: write until you are done and then stop. One of the most pernicious teaching devices we inflict on our students is the word (or page) count. But that’s a topic for another post.

What do you think of this idea for a diagnostic essay? Too elaborate? Too much like a real essay? Not enough like a real essay? Other? Got a better idea?

1 Comment

  • Richard

    April 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm Reply

    At most of the New York and Florida colleges where I’ve taught composition, for first-day diagnostics, I use a passage and then ask them to respond to a question about the text. Although you would want a less complex passage than the example below for community college students, this is a sample of what I’ve employed:

    In his 2007 essay collection, Better, surgeon and writer Atul Gawande discusses the myriad ways in which physicians might work to improve their performance. From a rural doctor in India who invents a safe and effective surgery for stomach ulcers to ways to encourage better hand-washing in hospitals, Gawander interests himself in the small details that, collectively, can make the difference between life and death. He is not shy to report his own failures, too, as he does in the chapter “On Fighting”:

    “I used to think that the hardest struggle of doctoring is learning the skills. But it is not, although just when you begin to feel confident that you know what you are doing, a failure knocks you down. It is not the strain of the work, either, though sometimes you are worn to your ragged edge. No, the hardest part of being a doctor, I have found, is to know what you have power over and what you don’t.
    I have a patient, Mr. Thomas, who came to see me in my clinic one autumn with Cushing’s syndrome, a hormonal disease in which the adrenal glands become enlarged and start pouring out massive amounts of cortisol, a steroid hormone…
    Thomas is seventy-two. Until that year, he had been a vigorous man enjoying retirement….Over the next few months, however, Thomas developed marked swelling of his face, his legs, his arms…
    He was sent to me for a consultation just before Thanksgiving…
    Thomas did not want to die. But he confessed to being more afraid of the surgery and what it might do to him….
    Technically, the surgery went as smoothly as it could have…. He is not longer dying. But seven months after the surgery, as I write this, he has still not gotten home…
    We have at our disposal today the remarkable abilities of modern medicine. Learning to use them is difficult enough. But understanding their limits is the most difficult task of all.” (Gawande 159)

    What is the lesson here?
    Write an essay responding to Gawande. Discuss his professional and ethical assumptions. If you have watched family members cope with health problems (or have done so yourself), you may want to reflect on what it is like to read about difficult situations from a doctor’s perspective. If you are considering becoming a doctor, you might look at this from that angle. Whatever approach you take, you should engage with the story Gawande tells and how he tells it as thoroughly and specifically as possible.

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